It’s six degrees Fahrenheit in my snowplowed town. My sinuses are cold holes just under the skin of my freezing face. I wrap my scarf around my mouth and nose to avoid the pit bull ferocious frostbite. Fog covers my glasses in the next breath. I take them off with my gloved left hand that is now growing cold. It’s getting to feel like the ice polar opposite of Egypt in Mosaic times. As I walk along the alley beside the sacred fire hall temple, I wonder if there is an equivalent Pharaoh somewhere in town, and if I could find him and smack him, would God relent on these winter plagues of snow and ice? “Just let the Hebrews go get some coffee, Pharaoh Fool! I still have frogs in my underwear drawer from last week. Enough already!!”
In the fire hall parking lot is a homeless guy sleeping on the bench seat of an old Mazda pick up truck. I’ve seen him around. He parks in different lots to avoid tickets and cops. Seeing him huddled there, suddenly I’m not so cold or whiney. I can’t imagine the raw edges of his frozen life, the searing cold, and the constant possibility of not waking up. How is this possible in our country of abundance? I recall a kid back in La Ceiba who slept on cardboard each night downtown. How? Why? Traffic and pedestrians carried on around him, but he remained oblivious and comatose in the busy morning rush. I suppose we all returned the favor, totally ignoring his plight. Hunger and drugs were likely wrestling inside his inert body. Honduras was warm in February, however. Here in Pa. you could easily freeze to death outside a warm but empty locked building. Way back in my memory I recall a local guy who used to break into buildings downtown to sleep in warmth. He’d leave $5.00 next to his desperately broken windows. He was not evil just hopeless; he died in his sleep. Guilt like a snowplow hits my hard heart. I need salt and sunlight to repair it.
I remember John Donne’s convicting words…
No man is an island
Entire of itself
Each is a piece of the continent
A part of the main
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
These words seemed appropriate to my observations, but I didn’t do anything beyond thinking of the tragedies of wasted lives in my path. And that’s the problem, not with these objects of viral poverty but with myself, my lack of compassionate action in both cases. Who is the I in “I am involved in mankind”? Is that God or is it me? I guess it’s both because I am supposed to represent Him to my fellow man just as Jesus represents me to the Father in heaven. Wow! I’m not doing a very good job at being an advocate for my fellow man. Touching outcasts is sometimes a stinky, sticky, awkward thing to do. You might get stuck. I remember Michael the sweaty schizophrenic kid that I “helped” in Richmond years ago. I could not get rid of him. He was like a mental health tar baby who kept me from sleeping for two psychotic nights. He paced my apartment impatiently. My roommates did not appreciate my experiment with rescuing street people, which I tended to do on occasions. I was naively trusting or voraciously overconfident or just plain stupid. When we finally got to the public clinic, everyone there called out a familiar, “Hi Michael”. I like to think I’ve grown in the past 35 years. Maybe I’ve just grown a shell over my heart.
Shells protect their wearers from hurt and death. The thicker the shell, the better, right?. That is, until the shell becomes so heavy that you cannot move. Imagine a one pound turtle with a fifty pound shell. Safe? Sure…but dead unless some other creature brings him food and water. Like those 600 pound bedbound folks who make the news on occasion, the turtle would be totally insulated and isolated from external harm, and completely vulnerable to the enemy within. Sufficient safety is bypassed for super safety; self sufficiency is pursued to the point of total helpless dependence. And you wind up a shell of a man. The man in the pickup truck was no more protected than the exposed kid on the sidewalk; he just had a sheet metal shell whereas the kid in La Ceiba had been shucked of his most basic defenses. But it’s not just outcasts that have heavy shells. Perfectionists do too. In their “all or nothing” worlds they wind up with nothing because perfect is an illusion, a delusion, a utopia. They are just as toxic as the wasted unwashed on the streets; we are just better at our own self-righteousness. Misers gather and hoard, more and more until they cannot move and their hearts are stone dead. What shell have you grown, Bloglarvae? Is it thin and transparent or thick as reinforced concrete?
Something intuitively tells me that I am more Pharaoh, heard hearted and stubborn and proud, than an oppressed Hebrew slave. At times I wonder if my soul has contracted arthritis, a chronic stiffness and inflammation from under use. Soul-thritis, if I may coin the term. It’s at the other end of the pool from compassion and humility, patience and soft heartedness. Every time I dismiss a fellow man, I become less. Am I safer? More secure? Maybe, but it’s the safety of money and power, guns and high fences. Less, I am less connected, loved, respected, included, etc. in mankind. If these street people are outcasts, then I am in incast, cast in stone, petrified. I know better and have known all my life that honeysuckle is sweet and tree sap is not. It’s that simple. And there goes the bell.